What Inspires Me

TWISTED TREES

It’s easy to praise

lush trees weighted

with fruit or flowers

but the true test

of love is to trace

skeletal silhouettes,

stripped of their leaves

by the wind.

What remains—

the endurance of bark,

exposed, the wisdom

of bare branches

to carry less

of winter’s weight.

   Karen Douglass

Photograph used with permission from Kit Hedman, photographer.  Thanks, Kit.

A Week of Weakness

My recent illness was not exotic, just an annoying head cold that required me to stay close to the tissue box and the herbal tea, and prevented me from leaving home in order not to offend or contaminate others. One of the several annoyances this week was the distraction of sneezing, coughing and dripping. My hands were busy with other things than the pen and notebook. Inactivity left large muscles sore and grumpy. Writing may begin in the brain but it is released into the world by the body, and my body was not cooperating.

While I was achy, frustrated, whiny, I read part of Helen Keller’s autobiography. Blind, deaf, and mute, Keller first learned finger spelling and finally speech. Her senses put her in touch with the world and the world in touch with her. Despite her long journey into literacy, her prose is clear, fresh, deliciously detailed, a lesson on the futility of self-pity and a beautiful reminder of the mind-body connection.

I remember a student who came often to the Writing Lab at LSU-S when I taught there. This woman had a spinal injury that left her immobilized with barely enough dexterity to manage the lever on her power wheelchair. But she wrote! She used a mouth stick to depress the keys on the computer keyboard. Given new voice-activated options, she is, I suspect, even more productive now than when I knew her. I’ve worried at times what I’d do if my right hand failed me and I could not write. I’d remember Kathy and find another way because I need the body to deliver what the mind invents.

Life Gets Busy, You Know?

I try to keep a schedule for the blog posts but some weeks it just doesn’t fit comfortably. And comfort becomes important as I juggle two writing projects. (Not to mention planning a launch party for the third novel.) One of the current projects is genealogy. It’s been years in the making, documenting the lives of my great grandparents, researching the times and places in which they lived, the ways in which they traveled. Not that it’s all fact. That’s not possible. I have to make it clear in the text where I draw my own conclusions. Otherwise, I can and will note my research sources, admit my suppositions, do my honest best to memorialize these people whom I’ve never met.

The other work in project is fiction and it grows daily. I hadn’t planned it, am surprised that all these words demand my attention. Or maybe it’s the characters who want me to recognize them, let them live on the page. Problem is, I don’t know where we’re going or where they’ve been. Fictional characters don’t leave a paper trail. And because I don’t plot early on in fiction, the characters do what they want. In less than 10,000 words so far, I have three strong characters and another two about to emerge. If the plot goes where I think it might, there will be others. It’s out of my hands despite my fingers on the keys.

In both of these projects, rewards spring up when I least expect them. A character whom I imagined as passive sticks out her hand, welcomes in a stranger, takes charge of the scene. Instead of a petite white woman, she’s a stately black woman. Who knew? Ancestors rarely show their faces but I find their lives in census records, city directories, immigration lists. Truth and fiction are not so different this week. It’s hard work keeping up with all these people, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Imperfect Gifts

One of my favorite books is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. It’s about passing along the gifts of creativity–writing, visual art, music, etc. It came up again this past week with a group of writers. But what if the gifts I give are less than perfect, not even close? After all, would I give someone a bald tire, a torn shirt, half a jar of peanut butter? I wouldn’t give stale bread to a starving child.

And what constitutes a real gift, as opposed to a gift to my own ego? “Look at the wonderful poem/book/photograph I’ve made.” Gifts are meant to signal generosity, not grandiosity. I remember a segment of the TV show Friends, in which Phoebe tried to give a gift that did not in any way serve her. She found that it was impossible, because she felt good about giving, thus the gift was never pure.

Gifts from writers are never pure either. The writing is never perfect and the writer’s pleasure in sharing affects the giving. But we still must move the work on. It’s a bit like raising a child and sending that kid out in the hope that he or she will be a friend to someone, a loving spouse, a hard worker. Poems, essays, and stories are our offspring, and sending them out is an act of faith, however flickering that faith may be. We cannot give without receiving, and maybe that’s the best gift of all.

Ekphrastic Writing

Yesterday Lighthouse Writers Workshop in collaboration with Denver Art Museum sponsored an event featuring ekphrastic writing, writing in response to visual art. Our host writer for the day was MolinaSpeaks, a Denver poet and artist. Molina led us to the 4th floor of the museum where a we visited Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place,  installations by 13 Latino artists exploring “contemporary life in the American West.” Our process was to first visit each of the installations and then choose one that inspired close observation, interaction, mystery, whatever might inform our own writing.

My choice was a mixed media grouping by artist Ramiro Gomez. His bronze sculpture of a woman stands outside the museum, near the entrance, and three mixed media pieces inside portray the same woman, Lupita, who cleans the museum. Gomez says in his bio that manual work is an important element of his art. He uses cardboard, black trash bags, a cleaning rag, a spray bottle in his constructions, textures and surfaces that Lupita handles as she cleans.

The static art brings her not to life but into our lives. At breakfast yesterday I did not know her. With my morning coffee today, I know of her. Here’s the poem that developed as I sat with Gomez’s art:

LUPITA

Cardboard and black plastic,

cleaning rag and spray bottle–

everything means something:

the blood-red paint, a woman

cut out of the background,

leaving a white silhouette

of a brown woman. Warned

to “stay behind the line”

meant to protect the art,

I cannot touch her, Lupita

of Integrated Cleaning Service

though she touches me.

Half Day at the DAM

Without intending to, yesterday I took the day off. Call it a personal day, a mental health day, or an unintended consequence, it doesn’t change the fact that I planned to write this week’s blog entry at the Denver Art Museum. I took my iPad and notebook, sure that some ekphrastic writing would magically appear and you, Dear Reader, would be entertained by my sharing. Didn’t happen. Technology failed me. The guest wifi at the museum was taking the day off too.

That glitch forced me to give up on product and just be there. Be one of the early birds rocking in a long line of huge lounge chairs in the plaza, being one of the visitors waiting for the doors to open, talking to tourists from Kansas and comparing museum notes. Feeling awed by a 30-ft tall stack of blankets in the American Indian section. And lunch at a window table in Palettes, watching people ride bikes, push strollers, stroll along holding hands on a sunny day.

I watched people of all sizes, shapes and skin tones, bulky, skinny, bared arms and legs, long dresses and short hair. We human’s are so beautiful, no matter what our costume. The young man with dreads wearing a Planned Parenthood tee shirt, he was beautiful. So was the woman discreetly breast feeding her infant in the museum. And the dad teaching his two middle-school sons to appreciate fine pottery.

Here’s the takeaway: a day spent looking is as good as a day spent writing. I’m the boss of me and I approve that day off. I’ll do it again.

Music, Magic and the Muse

It’s no news to anyone who follows me that I am a fan of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, especially the Friday 500 program. We never know till close to the event what our guide Dan Manzanares has planned. Yesterday he served up magic. What else can I call the mix of award-winning author Claudia Rankine’s work, the a capella group In Harmony’s Way–live, in the room with us–and a gaggle of writers?

Here’s the process: Dan read selections from Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and immediately after each reading the singers responded with spontaneous harmonies and rhythms. Two of the singers had studied with Bobby McFerrin, so that gives you a sense of what we heard. The music sounded to me a blend of scat and gospel. Amazing sounds made of pure air, percussion of stomping and clapping. Being in the same space with live music is itself magic: an inspiration of air, and then the risk of expiration shaped and shared.

While the singers worked their magic, writers took notes (though not like the notes on a music score) and then had 20 minutes to create something out of the experience. So we had an absent author, live music, and spontaneous writing, all in the same hour. Harmony in an age of disharmony! Here’s what I made:

ATLANTIC SONG: Sea waves stretch to touch the tideline, swish in, buzz, retreat. Crest, break, withdraw, low vowels and keen of gulls, syllables sway and skip a capella to the shore.

Remember to read for equality

Jericho Brown, The New Testament (poems)